Macomb and Oakland Join the Toxic Air Quality Club

Plus, a quick look at what President Biden’s environmental policy changes will mean for the Midwest
toxic air quality - metro detroit
Particulate pollution from heavy industry is partially to blame for high rates of asthma hospitalization in metro Detroit. // Photo: IStock

Wayne County’s toxic air quality is no surprise. Between its busy roadways and heavy industry, a dangerous level of pollution has blanketed the region for decades and plagued residents with higher rates of asthma and lung disease. But when the American Lung Association announced this spring that less dense, more suburban Macomb and Oakland counties have it almost as bad, the folks who dismissed the matter as an urban problem were forced to take notice.

The ALA gave all three counties glaring F’s for the high levels of ozone emissions over a period between 2017 and 2019, and Wayne got a D for particulate matter. These outcomes were not surprising to environmental watchdog groups that long have sounded the alarm on the problem. It’s so bad, in fact, that the Environmental Protection Agency may force the state to enact a six-year mitigation plan next year for metro Detroit.

“Ozone pollution is a regional issue that cuts across several counties, so it’s difficult for local governments to address,” says Nicholas Leonard, executive director of the nonprofit Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. Ever since the EPA raised ozone air quality standards in 2015, he says, all three counties have lagged. “We’ve known about this problem for several years now, and we haven’t taken any meaningful steps to address it.”

Some of Macomb and Oakland’s smog problems come from emissions wafting over from Wayne, but motorists in those counties also drive many miles and spew plenty of ozone emissions on their own, Leonard says. Particle pollution is more typically a product of heavy industry emissions, which Wayne County has in abundance. It can sometimes be observed as a fine coating of dust on outdoor surfaces and can trigger breathing and heart ailments as well as cancer. Detroit’s ZIP codes tend to see three to six times more hospital admissions than the state as a whole, according to a 2014 study of asthma hospitalization in Wayne County.

Both types of pollution contribute to the region’s sickening air quality problem, says Ken Fletcher, director of advocacy for the ALA. “Just because we don’t currently suffer from a condition doesn’t mean exposure to these pollutants can’t cause one,” he says. “Asthma, cardiovascular damage, developmental and reproductive harm, and premature death have all been linked to air pollution.” 

Fletcher says transitioning the public to electric cars is one of the most significant ways to address the problem, but widespread adoption is expected to take years, if not decades, in part because the cars tend to cost more than gas-powered options.

In the short term, government at every level is trying — with mixed results — to address the problems. In Detroit and Dearborn, local councils have enacted dust ordinances to curb particle pollution. And U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, state Sen. Stephanie Chang, and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash all are pushing measures aimed at reducing air pollution.

Leonard, however, isn’t confident about legislative prospects and believes regulatory agencies — the EPA and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy — need to step in. “The political realities of both the federal and state legislatures make it highly unlikely any significant air pollution legislation will get anywhere,” he says. —Ashley Winn

Biden’s Eco Turnabout

What his policy changes will mean for the Mitten

In the eight months since President Biden took office, he’s made quick work of reversing many Trump-era environmental policies which were, to be fair, reversals of Obama-Biden policies. Some of the changes have important ramifications for Michigan. Here’s a primer:

 Auto Standards: The Environmental Protection Agency plans to require new passenger cars to get an average of 51 mpg by 2026, up from the 44 mpg that Trump envisioned. This would force automakers to sell more electric cars to boost the mpg averages across their product lines. 

Line 5: The Biden administration, which angered Canada by canceling the Keystone XL oil pipeline in January, is in bilateral talks on how to proceed with Line 5, the twin oil pipelines that cross the Straits of Mackinac. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants it shut down yesterday, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers  says it’ll conduct a study of Enbridge’s plan to build a tunnel to contain the pipelines, which may delay a resolution of the matter for years. 

PFAS: EPA announced in June that it would classify the cancer-causing industrial runoff chemicals as toxic and is planning to require monitoring of 29 PFAS in drinking water. Michigan leads the U.S. with more than 11,300 sites where PFAS have been used and contaminated water. —Steve Friess

This story is featured in the August 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition